Author: Jacob Surpin
Jeffrey Eugenides used to be a dangerous novelist. Fellow writer William Deresiewicz said that his earlier work displayed “a willingness to push to extremes and the skill to bring it off once he got there.” Eugenides’ first novel, “The Virgin Suicides,” tells the haunting story of five teenage sisters who commit suicide in a Michigan suburb, while his Pulitzer-Prize winning second novel, “Middlesex,” is a coming-of-age story of its hermaphroditic narrator. Both novels are written from the first person point of view, and the narratives are gripping and noteworthy because of their novelty and willingness to deal with the limits of modern experience.
Eugenides’s latest novel, “The Marriage Plot,” lacks this sense of novelty. The title references older romance novels—most notably the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters—whose primary narrative devices have come to be known as “marriage plots.” These “marriage plots” are generally what they sound like: narratives mostly focused on main characters choosing whom to marry. By making this phrase the title of the book, and by quoting from Roland Barthes’s “The Lover’s Discourse” at parallel plot points throughout the novel’s first half, Eugenides invites readers to engage with the text as a meta-fictional exercise. And while meta-fiction was novel in the ‘80s—which is when “The Marriage Plot” takes place—it is now an overly safe space for Eugenides to operate in.
This meta-fiction subplot seems to be out of line with the sentiments of the actual book, which is a fairly traditional love story. In particular, the book’s main character, Madeleine Hanna, professes distaste for deconstructionist thought by offering a nostalgic lament for the straightforward narratives of Austen and her contemporaries. This is a sentiment that Eugenides seems to support by writing such a thoroughly realistic novel, with a traditional plot involving a love triangle and a clear conclusion. Yet he casts doubt on Madeleine’s opinion, and therefore the whole premise of the book, by making Madeleine seem childish and shallow at times. Readers are told that Madeleine gets accepted to Columbia and Yale for graduate school, but Eugenides never allows her to fully express her intellectual capabilities and she seems alarmingly subject to the whims of the two prominent men in the novel.
Both Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus, the two male legs of the love triangle, are madly in love with Madeleine and the “symmetries of her face,” which are described as “almost mathematical in their precision.” Yet while Mitchell befriends Madeleine first, Leonard wins the initial race for her affections.
Leonard and Madeleine meet during their senior year at Brown. Madeleine is attracted to Leonard because of his boldness, extroversion and intelligence and because he reminds her of a St. Bernard. He also, Eugenides would like us to know, has a very large penis: “Leonard’s girth filled Madeleine up in a way that felt not only satisfying, but breathtaking. Every millimeter of movement, in or out, was perceptible along her inner sheath. She wanted him all the time.” He’s not always Lord Byron in bed, however; Leonard is a manic-depressive, and for much of the book he is too drugged on Lithium to do much of anything at all.
Mitchell Grammaticus, who bears certain personality similarities to Eugenides, decides that he is going to marry Madeleine during his sophomore year at Brown. Unfortunately his story is mostly one of unrequited love. A religious studies major, Mitchell goes abroad to India after graduation to seek spiritual awakening and volunteer with Mother Teresa. Ultimately, Mitchell’s religious revelations come across as having more to do with his feelings toward Madeleine than anything else, which isn’t necessarily bad. It does, however, make his professed radical understanding of the Jesus Prayer (that mysterious entity first popularized by J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”) seem decidedly ludicrous.
While Eugenides’s earlier works employed concrete and innovative uses of first-person point of view, “The Marriage Plot” suffers from his use of an omniscient third person narrator. He tries to be everywhere at once and cover every angle of the story, and the plot moves along at a crawl as a result. The best parts of the book come when Eugenides reverts to the first-person through the use of letters and journal entries. These first-person pieces are written with energy and gusto, which makes the inevitable return to the third person modality in the rest of the book disappointing by contrast.
“The Marriage Plot” opens with the line, “To start with, look at all the books,” and the allusions to past novels and novelists are plentiful throughout. At one point, as Mitchell rooms with a stranger in a hotel in Paris, Eugenides overtly references a passage from Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” in which Ishmael stays with a cannibal at an inn. Ishmael wakes up in the cannibal’s loving embrace and says that he had the best sleep of his life.
This sense of danger, of pushing the limits of what is acceptable, is noticeably absent from “The Marriage Plot.” And ultimately, its absence condemns the book to be little more than the pages it holds. While interesting as a safe meta-fictional exercise, the book never comes alive.
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